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Supreme Court rules in dispute over federal sentencing guidelines

The Supreme Court ruled that a businessman was entitled to be sentenced under a version of sentencing guidelines in effect at the time he committed bank fraud, not the guidelines later enacted.

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An Illinois businessman convicted of bank fraud won an opportunity to receive a lighter sentence on Monday as the US Supreme Court ruled that his 70-month prison term violated the Constitution’s ban on ex post facto laws.

The high court ruled that the businessman, Marvin Peugh, was entitled to be sentenced under a version of the sentencing guidelines in effect at the time he committed his crimes, not the more punitive guidelines later enacted.

In a 5-to-4 decision, the high court said a federal judge’s reliance on the tougher guidelines in fashioning Mr. Peugh’s sentence violated the concept of “fundamental justice.”

The ban on ex post facto laws is designed to promote basic fairness by preventing the government from changing the law midway through a criminal case when the new law will result in more severe punishment.

The issue in Marvin Peugh v. US was whether the ban on ex post facto laws should apply beyond statutes to include any new, tougher version of the sentencing guidelines.  

“The Ex Post Facto Clause forbids the [government] to enhance the measure of punishment by altering the substantive ‘formula’ used to calculate the applicable sentencing range,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in the majority opinion.

“That is precisely what the amended guidelines did here,” she said. “Doing so created a ‘significant risk’ of a higher sentence for Peugh, and offended one of the principal interests that the Ex Post Facto Clause was designed to serve, fundamental justice.”

In a dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas said the sentencing guidelines may influence a judge’s sentencing decision but that the final sentence is discretionary. The Constitution bars ex post facto laws that increase punishment, not the enactment of discretionary guidelines that may result in a harsher sentence, he said.

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